Does my infant have a common cold, COVID-19 or RSV?

Baby Yum Yum - Does my infant have a common cold, COVID-19 or RSV
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The last two years have created a health crisis for people globally. The Covid-19 pandemic presented itself physically like how a common cold would. It has been challenging to distinguish if a child’s symptoms are of a cold or the Covid-19 virus.

According to The Daily Maverick, disease specialists at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases have predicted that infants are now at high risk of contracting the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown were effective in keeping little ones from contracting viruses.

Now that the world has opened up again, more RSV cases are being reported.

What is RSV?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract in babies and infants – usually in the winter months. It’s pretty common and it’s estimated that most children will have been infected with the virus by the time they turn 2.

Who is at risk for RSV? 

RSV can and does, affect older children but the symptoms are typically mild – similar to the common cold – and the illness can usually be treated symptomatically at home.

RSV can cause severe infection in babies younger than a year, especially those who were born premature, as well as in older people with a history of heart and lung disease, people over the age of 65, or anyone with a weakened immune system.

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How do you catch RSV?

RSV is a contagious virus that enters your body through your eyes, nose or mouth. You’re most likely to catch it from infected respiratory droplets from someone coughing or sneezing – and people are most contagious in week one of infection. The virus can also be spread by touching infected surfaces. According to the health site medRixv,  “infections among infants are primarily driven by transmission from older siblings in high-contact settings, such as schools and childcare centres.”

What are the symptoms of RSV?

Symptoms usually show up between 4 and 6 days after infection. Symptoms may be mild, including:

  • a stuffy or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • headache
  • dry cough
  • mild fever

In more severe cases symptoms can include:

  • high fever (not always present)
  • severe cough and wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • a bluish tinge to the skin (particularly the nail beds and lips) caused by a lack of oxygen

If RSV spreads into the lower respiratory tract it can cause more serious illnesses in infants, like pneumonia or bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung). If this happens, watch out for symptoms including:

  • shallow and/or rapid breathing
  • struggling to breathe
  • severe cough
  • extreme tiredness and/or irritability
  • lack of appetite

Symptoms usually last for between one and two weeks, although some respiratory symptoms, like wheezing, may last longer.

How is RSV treated?

As it’s a virus, there’s no ‘cure’ for RSV so patients’ symptoms are treated. Severe cases may require hospitalisation. In mild cases, you might try over-the-counter treatments like medicine to control fever or decongestant nose drops. A humidifier, and trying to keep your baby in an upright position, might make breathing easier.

Does my child have RSV or is it Covid-19?

RSV and COVID-19 are both viral illnesses, explains paediatrician Enrico Maraschin. RSV is a well-known entity and it occurs at specific times of the year while COVID-19 is a new virus, and new information on this virus is made known almost every day. As the COVID pandemic has evolved we have seen that the virus does not seem to be affected by seasons – there have been surges throughout the year.

RSV generally affects children younger than 2 years of age with a peak of infection happening in the 3 to 6 month age group. COVID-19, however, affects children of all age groups. Both RSV and COVID-19 present with typical symptoms of viral illnesses which include nasal congestion, fatigue, cough, difficulty breathing, fever and poor feeding.

RSV classically would result in a wheezy chest. Wheezing is not one of the major features of COVID-19 unless the child has asthma. COVID-19 could be differentiated in children who are able to communicate by having muscle aches and pains, a sore throat, loss of taste or smell and tummy upset. Children with RSV are usually too small to report such symptoms.

The surges of COVID-19 have not produced large numbers of paediatric cases. RSV is very contagious in the younger age group and has caused a big outbreak in the paediatric community recently so, at the moment, the chance of a paediatric patient having an RSV infection is far higher than the chances of them having COVID-19.

Both these conditions can cause respiratory distress. Should such symptoms occur it would be advisable that you consult your healthcare professional who will be able to help differentiate between these two illnesses. A nasal or throat swab will be performed to make the diagnosis if necessary.

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How can you protect your child or yourself from RSV?

RSV basic hygiene habits will help protect you and your child from contracting RSV – in fact, these are the same ways you can lower your chances of contracting Covid 19.

  • Wash your hands often with soap, and for 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Germs spread this way.
  • Avoid close contact, like sharing drinking glasses, with people who have symptoms
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue
  • Disinfect surfaces that are people touch regularly like doorknobs

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